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"I remember as a kid telling someone I wanted to make violins and they looked at me sideways."

 

Crafting a Dream

A vascular nurse follows his heart and his hands to realize a lifelong ambition to make violins.


In his workshop, Bob Morgan displays one of the violins he's completed.
Bob Morgan perches one of his violins between his chin and shoulder, clasps his homemade bow, closes his eyes and begins to play a haunting Irish funeral aire.

Since childhood, the violin has been an off-and-on part of his life. Morgan chased and finally caught his passion to play the "fiddle," as he calls it, and later, his dream of hand crafting the delicate instrument. Along the way, a career-altering accident led him into nursing at Hopkins Hospital. The fact that Morgan is capable of doing any of these things shows that he indeed has a bit of Irish luck pulsing through his veins.

A nurse with Hopkins' 24-member vascular access team, Morgan, 49, and colleagues cover the entire hospital-the medical-surgical units in Meyer, the medical intensive care unit in Osler and cardiac surgery ICU in Nelson, as well as the Weinberg and Halsted buildings-setting up IVs, central lines and feeding tubes.

While he traverses floor to floor as a vascular nurse, Morgan's violin work is grounded literally in his basement. In the center of a well-lighted space aromatic of fresh wood shavings, Morgan plies his handiwork. Artistically, he admits, his fiddles don't compare to vintage violins. But he would wager on the sound itself.

"Violins are similar to children," he says. "First, they are born. They grow. They get a richer voice the older they are. Violins, though, continue to develop a voice for about 200 years."

Morgan's own violin voice is rather young. He never took up the instrument as a child, he says, because in his neighborhood "you didn't walk home carrying a violin case if you didn't want to be marked as an easy target." Instead, he waited to play music until his early 20s, teaching himself three instruments in two years-guitar, mandolin and then the violin. When he signed up to take lessons from a classically trained jazz violinist, he admits, "I had to relearn everything."

But he ignored any thoughts of pursuing a career as a musician or studying violin making. "Violin makers live below the poverty level," he says. "And musicians live hand to mouth. I'm not into starving."

For 15 years, Morgan earned a living as a tool and die maker, crafting parts for medical instruments. Then he nearly lost two fingers when his hand was pinned between 300-pound pieces of razor-sharp steel. The incident made him re-evaluate his livelihood, and he decided to head back to school.

Inspired by the career path taken by his wife, a Hopkins oncology nurse, and his brother, a nurse anaesthetist in Florida, Morgan took his love of science and an instinctive desire to care for others to nursing school. It was a stressful transition, he says, but a life without fingers and music would have been worse.

Thirteen years later, Morgan enjoys the time he spends with patients, teaching them and staff members the proper use of a feeding tube or how to prevent blockages in central lines. Then, with his career well established, he returned to the musical instrument he loves with the same dedication and discipline. Three years ago, he started teaching violin to adults and children. He also began repairing, restoring and improving students' violins.

Still, he had one more dream, and in the summer of 2001, he finally realized his longstanding desire to study violin making.

After hearing about a summer course from friends and co-workers at the Catonsville music store where he teaches violin, Morgan signed up to study with a world-renowned German violin maker at the University of New Hampshire. During the four-week course, from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m, he immersed himself in the craft, mastering new tools and the techniques to build the body of the violin.

"I remember as a kid telling someone I wanted to make violins," says Morgan, "and they looked at me sideways." He never said anything like that again until he announced it to his wife four years ago. "It's like being a painter or a sculptor," he explains. "It's an artistic expression you leave behind that some day might bring someone pleasure."

Now, Morgan makes two violins at a time in his basement workshop. He precisely measures and hand-cuts the spruce and maple wood on his draftsman table. He creates the bow from Siberian horsehair, the heavy, durable hair used traditionally for centuries. Using hand tools, he gives the instrument a rich sound by shaving bits of wood to create layers and curves crucial to making a raised bridge. Once he adds the pegs and the fingerboard, he opens the basement windows or takes the new instrument outside to varnish it.

As much as he loves making the violins, he is just as enthusiastic about restoring them-touching up an aging varnish, replacing the pegs and strings, rebuilding the bridge.

Morgan lays what looks like a small unadorned coffin on his dining room table. He unlocks the latch and opens the top to reveal a plush red velvet interior cushioning a gleaming 200-year-old violin that he's painstakingly restored. He gingerly lifts the violin from its cradle and nestles it underneath his chin. With the wave of the bow, chords of another Irish aire dance off the strings-a lyrical testament to an unwavering pursuit of a dream.

-Seana Coffin

 

A Lasting Legacy


Steven Piantadosi breaks a sweat chiselling away bits of wood from his violin.

Different backgrounds, different jobs, same passion.

Though vascular nurse Bob Morgan's love of making violins may seem unusual, it's one he shares with oncology biostatistician Steven Piantadosi. Each doggedly pursued a life-long interest in the instrument, and, although they've never met, both ended up taking the same unique course in violin making at the University of New Hampshire's Violin Craftmanship Institute. Last July, Piantadosi left behind the pile of clinical trials data he culls and synthesizes as the Cancer Center's biostatistics director, and, like Morgan did the year before, plunged into three weeks of intensive hands-on study.

For 20 years, Piantadosi had made violins following kits or books. But under the critical eye of Karl Roy, former director of a renowned German violin making school, he realized he had to relearn everything.

Roy showed the class a violin how-to book peppered with "F's" the famed instructor had scribbled in to mark things a violin craftsman would never do. Furthermore, Piantadosi discovered that Japanese tools didn't meet Roy's exacting standards. Joining, measuring the plane and gluing the violin plate by hand frustrated Piantadosi. What usually took 15 minutes using some power tools took one long sweaty day. "It was tough being a student again," he says, "because it is hard to subject oneself to the scrutiny of an expert and risk of failure in a totally new area. Most of us as we get older don't do that. But I admit to finding it fun."

He thrived under the master's tutelage as Roy pointed out the minute roughness in the curve of a classmate's scroll and other subtleties of this delicate instrument. His insistence on exactness spurred Piantadosi to demand more of himself. "It's extremely gratifying when you realize what you can do with your hands and have your work pass muster, " says Piantadosi, who plans to return next summer to finish his violin.

Piantadosi expects his violin to have a greater longevity than his scientific conclusions. "In medicine, you are producing results you expect to be supplanted by knowledge later on," he explains. "But making a violin is something tangible. It will outlive you."

 

 

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